Community solar programs gain popularity among the many New Yorkers who don’t own their roofs

An affordable housing co-op in West Harlem is weighing their options — change over to electric heat pumps, install rooftop solar or both. It’s an energy decision they must make in the next couple of years when their boiler that runs on fuel oil #2 needs to be replaced, as new climate laws take effect.

For these homeowners, who are all low-to-middle income, climate change mitigation feels like both a luxury and a necessity for the 20-unit building on West 156th Street. Government incentives and tax credits can cover more than 70% of the upfront costs of solar panels, yet customers still end up paying tens of thousands of dollars for installations.

But co-op board member Estelle Bajou doesn’t want to wait or be left out of the clean energy transition just because she has to “make every dollar count on a low income.”

“When you’re low-income, there’s an expectation that you won’t be able to afford to go green,” said Bajou.

Looking for alternatives, a growing number of leaseholders, small businesses or even low-income homeowners like Bajou are turning to community solar programs. Renewables developers compare the concept to Netflix — a subscription in one of these programs entitles a person to a share of a solar farm or a rooftop installation rather than outright ownership. This share of renewable power generation offsets a customer’s own electricity usage, reflected directly on their utility bill.

They also get to contribute individually toward mitigating climate change. Every megawatt of solar power generates emissions-free electricity that could replace a megawatt of natural gas, which releases 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

This option also allows energy customers to choose solar power without paying for the upfront costs, construction and commitment. Out-of-pocket expenses for household solar installations range from $15,000 to $22,000 in New York City, according to market analysts at EnergySage.

In March, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that more 1 gigawatts of community solar had been installed across New York, which could power more than 200,000 homes every year. More than 700 projects are in the works, she said, which would add up to another 2.3 gigawatts of power toward the state’s goal of building 10 gigawatts by 2030.

Those homeowners will save up to $75,000 in energy costs over 20 years, yet it can take up to eight years to break even. But most New Yorkers don’t even own their own roofs, as nearly 70% rent, so they can’t install solar panels to harness the sun’s power.

In February, Bajou’s building enrolled in community solar for its common area energy usage. The signup process can be done online in a few minutes with a private solar company that has an agreement with Con Edison. The West Harlem co-op has a guaranteed discount of at least 10% in savings compared to what they previously paid the local power provider, a standard benefit for most subscriptions.

Bajou said it was a way of getting renewable energy immediately and without having to budget for a capital project or deal with construction.

“You don’t feel like you have as much power to influence policy makers, and joining this collective [community solar] does feel really good,” Bajou said.

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